Urry elected president of Astronomical Society

Physics professor Megan Urry — an advocate for female leadership in the science community — has been elected the next president of the American Astronomical Society.

Members of the AAS elected Urry to the position in early February. Though she will begin her two-year term in June 2014, she will spend the next year as president-elect preparing for her role. The first Yale professor elected to the position, Urry will succeed Columbia University astronomy professor David Helfand. Urry’s colleagues at Yale said she has been a strong advocate for increased gender diversity in the field of astronomy, a goal Urry said she intends to continue pursuing once she assumes her presidency.

Urry, who learned about her nomination for the presidency last summer, said she decided to run because she knew her term as Yale Physics Department chair was ending and she felt she could handle new responsibilities. She was required to submit a candidacy statement and was then elected by the 7,500 members of the AAS through an online voting system. During her tenure as AAS president, Urry will remain at Yale and continue to teach classes.

Though Urry is not the first female to serve as AAS president, she said she is excited that her peers elected a female leader. An advocate for gender equity, Urry has previously served as chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women, which performs outreach to encourage women to enter the field of astronomy.

“She has done more for the position of women in astronomy than anyone ever has,” said Joan Schmelz, current chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women. “Here at the committee, we say that in terms of creating progress, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants — we’re standing on Meg’s shoulders.”

Urry’s colleagues at Yale said she has also advocated for diversity within the University’s Physics Department. Physics professor Volker Werner said Urry has always emphasized the importance of female leadership at faculty meetings.

“Diversity is so important for the field of science because we want to generate the best and most creative ideas,” Urry said. “It’s exciting to see how much progress there’s been, because when I first entered the field there were very few women astronomers.”

During the next year while Urry serves as an incoming president, she plans to meet with professionals in the field of astronomy to formulate the agenda for her presidency. She said she will build on relationships she has forged during her active involvement with AAS as a member of its governing council and nominating committee. Her plans also include monitoring the federal budget to learn about limitations on funding for scientific research and expanding on her previous work to promote different types of diversity within her field, she added.

Urry said presidential responsibilities include overseeing the AAS’s leadership council, directing educational programs and advocating for federal funds for astronomy.

“Astronomy can be a more difficult field to advocate for because other sciences are more connected to people’s everyday lives,” Urry said. “But I hope to show that astronomers are exploring crucial issues, like the role humans play in the cosmos.”

Urry’s election is not her first recognition from AAS this year -— in January, she was honored with the George Van Biesbroeck Prize, AAS’s major annual award for service in the field of astronomy. The award recognized Urry’s scholarly research as well as her devotion to advancing female participation in scientific disciplines.

The American Astronomical Society was founded in 1899.

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